It was a snowy morning in January 2012, and I was at the Boys and Girls Club in Salem, N.H., to take in a Mitt Romney campaign event. I had shown up early — so early that it was still dark outside — but plenty of people had arrived before me, and the hall, arranged as a theater-in-the-round, had filled to capacity before Romney made his appearance on stage.
I don’t remember what Romney told the crowd that morning. He had lost the Iowa caucuses to Senator Rick Santorum a few days earlier, and among Republicans there was clearly no consensus that Romney should be the party’s presidential nominee. A slew of newspapers had endorsed candidates ahead of the upcoming New Hampshire primary, with several of the most prominent papers — including the New Hampshire Union Leader, the Keene Sentinel, the Concord Monitor, and the Boston Globe — opposing Romney and backing one of his opponents.
But it didn’t matter. With Romney in New Hampshire that day was Senator John McCain, and his was the endorsement that mattered most. Four years earlier, McCain had brought his collapsing presidential campaign back to life with a decisive win in the New Hampshire primary; in the same state eight years before that, McCain had trounced George W. Bush by 18 points. The Arizonan had such a palpable connection with Granite State Republicans that it became almost a cliché to call him New Hampshire’s third senator.
What I realized that morning in Salem was that it wasn’t just Romney that voters had gotten up early to see. It was McCain, too: That was clear from the cheering that erupted when he joined the former Massachusetts governor on stage. Among those cheering was Steve Rowe, a Vietnam-era veteran who had spent much of the 1970s aboard the USS Saratoga, a US Navy supercarrier. He had shown up at the Boys and Girls Club, camera in hand, hoping to get a picture of his fellow Navy vet. He had been undecided about whom to support, he told me — but if McCain was backing Romney, he would too. With America’s most famous former POW in Romney’s corner, Rowe predicted, “he’ll pull a lot of votes from people like me.”
He did. Five days later, Romney won the New Hampshire primary, and then went on to win the nomination.